When breath becomes air

Paul Kalanithi was a man who spent his life trying to find Truth. First he searched for it in literature, then in neurosurgery and neuroscience. He studied at Stanford, Cambridge and Yale.

He wanted to understand the difference between brain and mind; between the physical and metaphysical. He was always acutely aware of his mortality, and was never afraid to face it.

‘When breath becomes air’ is a beautifully written autobiography of a man who had to make the difficult transition from a doctor who saved lives to a lung-cancer patient who knew that his would not be saved.

He continued to work as a surgeon despite aggressive treatment, and never gave up on his search for Truth.

This is an intelligent, thought-provoking and emotional story, and I would wager probably the best written book that I will read this year.




Paul talks about how even when we live, we are dying.

Often our search for beauty, truth, for why we are here, sits in the tension between life and death. We feel immortal, cannot grasp not exising; yet are faced with the inescapable truth that one day we will die.

Beauty is often found in the physical representation of our mortality: a flower that will soon wither; a sunset whose light will suddenly fade; a short-lived rainbow. Their very mortality makes their beauty even more sweet.

If we choose not to avoid our mortality, but instead stare it in the face, I believe that our search for Truth will be enabled. The pretence that if we don’t think about death then it will never find us, just blurs our vision.

Paul Kalanithi was a man with his eyes wide open. It’s stunningly refreshing.




One good side effect of cancer is that you get to read more.

I’ve just finished a book called ‘What to do with lobsters in a place like Klippiesfontein‘ by Colette Victor.

I spotted it in the bookshop and knew immediately that it was a book set in South Africa, from the front cover and title. I don’t read books set in SA very often (although the last novel I read was set in Tanzania) but this one appealed to me, mostly for it’s quirky title. It is a good, light-hearted read, but there is simmering racial tension – almost a prerequisite for any book set in my old home country. I was pleased to see that I can still remember a fair amount of Afrikaans (there are several quotes in the language.) Lekker. I can confirm that it did not make me want to go back to SA, at all.

One thing I didn’t like about the book is that the main character’s wife gets cancer. Ever since my diagnosis, cancer seems to be almost everywhere – I expect it in the medical dramas on TV but it’s also in the soaps and in the news and even in George Clarke’s The Resoration Man, for goodness sake (one of the people renovating an old building died of cancer aged 33 – great.) I guess that I should be grateful that cancer has a high profile – at least people know what it is, unlike so many rare diseases.

I have started reading ‘A survival guide for life‘ by Bear Grylls. It’s a self-help book with lots of encouraging quotations. For those who don’t know, Bear is a Christian survival expert who presents lots of survival programmes on TV. He is also the UK’s chief scout, and has written many kids’ and adults’ books. The best thing about Bear is his amazing positive attitude. It’s what sets him ahead of the pack. It’s an easy to read book that makes you question your real motivations, and what is setting you back in life. I don’t usually do self-help books, but this one is different.

Have a guess what the difference is between a £1 million racehorse and a £100 racehorse. Well, obviously the £1000000 one is 10000 times faster than the £100 one. Right? That’s clearly ridiculous… At best the difference is only ever going to be a few seconds. There is often just a nose between first and forth place in a horse race.

And it’s the same in life.

(Grylls, B (2012))

Well, that makes you think, doesn’t it?

So if you feel that you are losing at life or at work or wherever, it’s not because you are really slow or much stupider or worse off than everyone else who seems to be succeeding and happy. You are only a few seconds behind. And what will help you to catch up? I believe that the vital ingredient is a positive attitude. A ‘yes this will be really hard and sometimes I will want to quit and people might laugh at me but I am going to keep going anyway’ approach . It’s worth so much more than a good education or rich parents or good looks.

And the great thing about a good attitude, is that it’s free. And you can choose to have it – or you can choose to let circumstances get you down – your choice. Not your parent’s choice. Not your teacher’s choice. Not your boss’ choice. Your choice.

I have come that they may have life, and life to the full.” Jesus.

John 10:10

Bear Grylls bookKlippiesfontein book

I love books.

God’s not dead

God’s not dead is a film about a freshman at college called Josh (Shane Harper) who begins a philosophy course. His Gods not deadlecturer Professor Radisson (Kevin Sorbo) is an atheist, and tells every student in the first class to write on a piece of paper ‘God is dead’ and then sign it and hand it in. This is apparently to get the ‘ridiculous’ argument about whether God exists, out of the way so that they can focus on ‘reality’ in the class. But Josh refuses to do it because he is Christian.
The lecturer says that that’s fine, but Josh will have to convince the class in a series of three short lectures at the end of the next few lessons, that God is not dead. If he doesn’t, he will fail a significant portion of the year.
This is the main plotline, but there are also sub-plots involving other people’s walk with or discovery of God, such as a Muslim girl who hides a secret; and someone who finds out that they have cancer.
The film starts slowly, but it is pretty good. It encourages non-Christians to think about what they believe, and isn’t airy-fairy in that it does address some concerns about evolution and pain: probably the two main things that draw people away from God. Hopefully some viewers will be encouraged by the story to find out more about Jesus, or at least challenge themselves to think about what they actually believe in.
Another criticism I have is that it portrays Muslims harshly, and feel that there is no need for that in the film.
I think it’s helpful for Christians (especially new ones) and agnostics to watch. Atheists are unlikely to watch it, thanks to its title, but you never know, the open-minded may give it a try, even if it’s just to ridicule the typical American Christians.
The only big name is Dean Cain (Superman!) which is a bonus, even if he is a grumpy businessman in the film. There is also a performance by Newsboys, a Christian rock band.
The film encourages believers to stand up for God and not be swayed by other people’s (often loud) opinions.
The message is that yes, bad things happen, people get hurt, but in the end, God is good, all the time.

Matthew 10:32-34
32 So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, 33 but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.